Book Review: Big Book of Baseball Legends

I’ll say this much for Rob Neyer—he’s certainly established a nice little niche for himself in the book publishing industry. Several years ago he came out with Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Lineups, a fun little collection of information you could pick up and randomly peruse at your leisure.

Two years ago came its sequel, Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Blunders. This was a bit more ambitious than its predecessor, but was still meant to be enjoyed in bite size chunks. These books were ideal things to glance at while in the bathroom, answering nature’s call. Just to be clear, that was meant as a compliment.

Now he’s back yet again with Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Legends. Though the subject matter has changed, the format remains the same. This particular book was clearly inspired by his work for Bill James way back in the early 1990s. In those ancient days of yore, Neyer occasionally researched “tracers”—stories by old-time ballplayers about their exploits on the field. He’d look up and see if it happened, when it happened, and if it didn’t happen how the memory came about.

He’d only get a handful of those worked out for a book, because Retrosheet was still just a gleam in David Smith’s hard drive back then. Here, Neyer crams in nearly 90 stories. Plus in the margins, he’s got more blips and blurps he’s come across (though he hasn’t necessarily investigated all the marginals).

He looks up all kinds of stories from 20th century baseball, mostly from the 1920s to 1970s. Did Babe Ruth nearly beat Leo Durocher to death for stealing his watch? Did Dave Kingman really injure himself by mouthing off to an umpire while legging out a hit? Did Fred Haney have an informal quota for how many blacks could be on the field in the 1950s? And my favorite—did Rube Waddell really hit a homer that caused an explosion at a nearby bean factory, leading to a near riot?

Beyond that, the book largely defies reviewing. Do you think you’d enjoy a book where someone takes old baseball stories and checks them against the factual record? Then you’ll probably enjoy reading it. Neyer does a good job executing on the book’s premise. Plus, the typical article is three to four pages long—perfect length for bathroom reading.

If you think it sounds like nitpicking and excessive debunking, buy something else. Neyer admits at the book’s outset that this isn’t for everyone. Bill James, in the book’s foreword, expresses some misgivings about paying some much attention to the minutia of the stories that there’s no larger overall meaning.

Personally, I liked this book. You get a sense that this was a real labor of love for Neyer as he constantly had to go back to the microfilm reading rooms and library vaults to dig out what actually happened in some forgotten game a half-century ago. Sure, some stories can be solved simply by looking at the statistical record, but those ain’t the books highlights.

Neyer once mentioned that when he started writing, his former employer Bill James advised him to avoid getting to formal. Just write like you are talking to a friend. He certainly nails the conversational tone throughout, as you can see the gears working in his head as he goes step-by-step investigating the different stories he’s uncovered.

I would recommend that you avoid reading too much in one sitting. Spend too much time with Legends and parts of it do start to sound like nitpicking. It’s meant to be grazed, not devoured. It really is a bathroom book.

When reading over the stories, some themes emerge explaining the gap between memory and event. Some are memories of a dramatic event that the hazy mists of memory has made excessively dramatic. Actually, that’s most of them.

With others, the tale teller merely conflates multiple events into one. Some stories are willfully punching up by people who don’t want truth to get in the way of a good story. Others are just cases where a person’s perception of the event doesn’t quite match the record.

Oh yeah, and others are actually true.

Actually, what’s fun in reading over this is realizing how much truth these stories contain. The details might be a bit hazy, but Al Simmons really did overcome an injury to have a great clutch hit. Vic Raschi apparently did have a “Eureka!” moment after allowing a pitcher to get a hit off of him, even if it didn’t cost the team the game.

I found it intriguing how many stories like those could be both true and inaccurate. For me, those were the highlights of the book. As a result, I do understand how it can seem like an exercise in needless nitpicking. For me, the interest in the research outweighed any negatives.

One of the book’s highlights is a longer piece on Babe Ruth’s called shot. He assembles a slew of eyewitness testimonies to try and figure out what actually happened on that most legendary baseball moment. He presents over a dozen accounts of that at-bat. While there’s certainly no unanimity about it, the evidence does lean clearly in one direction.

It’s not without its flaws. Some stories just peter out without a real firm conclusion. (If he didn’t want to contact Gerry Arrigo about the Johnny Bench incident, then dang it he shouldn’t have put it in the book.)

One serious SNAFU that needs to be mentioned, especially for those of you who read the book out of order: there’s a misplaced postscript late in the book.

On pages 219-221, he addresses if Frank Chance really had the Cubs acquire Jack Harper just so he could bury him on the bench in payback for a beaning he’d once given Chicago’s Peerless Leader. On page 225, Neyer writes an addendum to the story.

Clearly, he meant to put it three pages earlier, but instead it’s right after the story of Sonny Siebert delivering a purpose pitch to Danny Cater. For anyone who hadn’t yet read the Harper-Chance story, it doesn’t make any damn sense whatsoever.

Mostly the problems I have are themselves just nitpicks. I enjoyed reading about Bud Beasley and Buck Lai; Tommy Lasorda‘s connection to God and most especially Rube Waddell’s bean-belching homer. It’s probably my favorite Big Book of [Something or Other] to date. If you like the concept behind it, you’ll like the book Neyer wrote.

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